R. Kelly's sex-trafficking conviction: Everything that's happened, including sentencing

·17 min read

R. Kelly's fate has been determined: A judge on Wednesday sentenced the R&B star to 30 years in prison after he was convicted of sex trafficking and racketeering New York.

A jury of seven men and five women in September found the 55-year-old guilty on all nine counts of sex trafficking and racketeering after two days of deliberations. The guilty verdict came after six weeks of graphic testimony from dozens of accusers and witnesses.

The charges were based on an argument that the entourage of managers and aides who helped the singer meet girls — and keep them obedient and quiet — amounted to a criminal enterprise.

The star has repeatedly denied accusations that he preyed on women throughout his 30-year career, and his lawyers have portrayed accusers as groupies who are lying about their relationships with him. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly, who presided over last year's trial, imposed the sentence after hearing statements from victims Wednesday, following submissions from prosecutors and defense attorneys of their own recommendations for the time Kelly should serve.

Here's everything that's happened in the explosive trial.

SENTENCING: R. Kelly sentenced to 30 years in prison after NY sex trafficking conviction

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R. Kelly arriving at the Leighton Criminal Court in Chicago for arraignment on June 26, 2019.
R. Kelly arriving at the Leighton Criminal Court in Chicago for arraignment on June 26, 2019.

R. Kelly sentencing hearing

Kelly, 55, was present in Brooklyn's federal court for the sentencing hearing Wednesday.

Prosecutors sought a minimum 25-year term after submitting a memo earlier in June, while the defense attorneys said a sentence of 10 years or less is all he deserves.

Kelly’s lawyers argued in court papers he should get a break in part because he “experienced a traumatic childhood involving severe, prolonged childhood sexual abuse, poverty, and violence.”

R. Kelly verdict: R&B star found guilty in New York sex-trafficking trial

R. Kelly found guilty

The jury found Kelly guilty on just the second day of deliberations. Kelly remained motionless, eyes downcast as the verdict was read.

Kelly was also convicted of criminal counts accusing him of violating the Mann Act, which makes it illegal to take anyone across state lines “for any immoral purpose.”

Kelly faced multiple sex-trafficking and racketeering charges dating back decades and involving six complaining witnesses, including the late singer Aaliyah, called Jane Doe No. 1 by prosecutors, who died in a 2001 plane crash.

Kelly's lawyer Deveraux Cannick said he was disappointed by the verdict. “I think I’m even more disappointed the government brought the case in the first place given all the inconsistencies,” Cannick said.

Kelly, who has been behind bars since his arrest in July 2019, faces up to 20 years in prison.

Kelly still faces similar federal and state charges in Illinois and in Minnesota.

The government accused Kelly of leading "a criminal enterprise" of managers, bodyguards and other employees who allegedly helped Kelly to recruit women and underage girls for sex and pornography, and to cross state lines for that purpose. The defense hit back, telling the jury they've been misled by opportunistic accusers about consensual relationships.

Kelly was also accused of knowingly infecting some accusers with a sexually transmitted disease, bribery, kidnapping, forced labor and producing child pornography.

R. Kelly has been found guilty of sex trafficking. Now what happens?

Jury deliberates

A couple hours into the deliberations on Friday, the jurors sent the judge a note asking to review a transcript of testimony and evidence regarding a woman who claimed Kelly sexually assaulted her in 2003 when she was a 21-year-old radio station intern. She testified she was kept locked up in a recording studio for days and drugged before the assault. The jurors ended the day without reaching a verdict and returned the next day to resume their work.

Judge instructs jurors on law

Donnelly began issuing her final instructions to the jury, under the expectation the jurors would get the case later. Earlier, they heard a fiery rebuttal to the defense’s closing arguments, which portrayed Kelly as a victim of false accusations.

Kelly “believed the music, the fame and the celebrity meant he could do whatever he wanted,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nadia Shihata said in federal court in Brooklyn.

But, she added, “He’s not a genius, he’s a criminal. A predator.” She added that his alleged victims “aren’t groupies or gold diggers. They’re human beings.”

Prosecution asks jurors to make R. Kelly 'pay' for his alleged sex crimes

"It is now time to hold the defendant responsible for the pain he inflicted," Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Geddes told jurors on Sept. 23 in her closing arguments in federal court in Brooklyn. "It is now time for the defendant, Robert Kelly, to pay for his crimes. Convict him."

On Sept. 22 she told the court that the government had delivered on its promises to prove that the R&B singer had for years commanded close associates to help him target, groom and exploit girls, boys and young women for his own sexual gratification.

Six weeks of testimony from more than 45 witnesses and other evidence “showed he did just that,” Geddes said. She said Kelly got away with sexually abusing his accusers by surrounding himself with enablers he managed with an iron fist.

“For many years, what happened in the defendant’s world stayed in the defendant’s world,” she added. “But no longer.”

Defense attorney Deveraux Cannick countered on Sept. 23 by telling the jury that testimony by several accusers was full of lies, and that “the government let them lie.”

“Where the fairness to Robert?" Cannick added. "Where’s the integrity of the system?”

The defense argued it would be nonsensical for a celebrity like Kelly to set up a criminal enterprise to entrap victims. Someone like Kelly "didn't have to recruit women,” Cannick said.

He also argued the accusers were never forced to do anything against their will. Instead, his girlfriends stuck around because Kelly spoiled them with free air travel, shopping sprees and fancy dinners — treatment that belied the predator label, he said.

“He gave them a lavish lifestyle," he said. “That's not what a predator is supposed to do.”

Kelly didn't take the stand

On Sept. 22, R. Kelly confirmed to the judge he would not take the stand in his trial. The day prior, Cannick, one of R. Kelly's defense attorneys, told the judge without the jury present that his client was unlikely to take the stand. Cannick made the comment as the defense wrapped up its case.

The singer and his team had not given the impression he would be providing testimony to jurors, even though Donnelly said the defendant still had time to change his mind before closing arguments. The remark elicited a nod from Kelly.

Kelly's attorneys make their case

The defense began its case by starting to call Kelly loyalists to the witness stand in an effort to cast doubt on some of the accusers’ accounts. Larry Hood, a childhood friend who worked security for Kelly as an off-duty Chicago police officer in the early 2000s, claimed he never witnessed Kelly misbehaving with underage girls. A defense attorney also asked if he saw his friend lock anyone in a room.

“No, sir,” Hood responded. If he saw that, he added, “As a police officer, I would have had to take action against that.” On cross-examination, Hood admitted the police department fired him in 2007 after a guilty plea in a counterfeit money case, though he got to keep his pension.

Accountant John Holder testified for the defense that they never saw him torment his alleged accusers. Holder described seeing Kelly carrying around a backpack full of cash – proceeds from concerts – to take the women and girls on shopping sprees.

Most of the defense witnesses said they never saw Kelly abuse anyone. One went as far to say Kelly was “chivalrous” to his girlfriends. Another admitted he owed Kelly for his break in music business and wanted to see him beat the charges.

Jury hears audio and video recordings of Kelly

On Day 16 of the trial, prosecutors filed a motion seeking to have the jury hear excerpts of two tapes, including one in which an enraged Kelly can be heard accusing an unidentified woman of lying to him before beginning to assault her, according to the court filing.

"If you lie to me, I'm going to (expletive) you up," Kelly says.

Another recording played the same day captures the R&B star threatening another woman – referred to as Jane Doe No. 20 in the government's filing – whom he believes stole a Rolex watch from him. "You better not ever … take from me again or I will be in Florida and something will happen to you," he says.

Prosecutors had planned to call the woman as a witness to testify about an uncharged crime, but decided against it when she had an "emotional breakdown" while listening to the tape in preparation for her testimony, the filing says in a footnote.

The judge indicated that same day she would grant the government’s motion to use the tapes as evidence at the trial, which began on Aug. 18.

On the following day, the prosecution played another recording of Kelly, which the jury listened to with headphones. There was no audio for the press and public – already restricted by the judge to an overflow courtroom as a coronavirus precaution – making it impossible to know exactly what the panel was seeing or hearing, or how it was reacting to it.

Prosecutors argue the recordings show the physical and psychological abuse Kelly allegedly employed to control women and girls with whom he had sexual relationships, and how he allegedly used the recordings to maintain control over the criminal enterprise he's charged with running.

Witness testifies about what she saw Kelly do to Aaliyah

On Day 15, another witness, testifying as "Angela," said she saw Kelly in a "sexual situation" with the late R&B singer Aaliyah around 1993, when Aaliyah was only 13 or 14.

The witness, a former backup performer for Kelly whose testimony matches the description of Jane Doe No. 7 in prosecutors' filings, described opening a door on Kelly's tour bus to find him appearing to perform a sex act on the girl.

The witness also told the jury that Kelly had sex with her when she was 15, making her the latest accuser to testify he sexually exploited them when they were underage.

Earlier in the trial, the jury heard a former Kelly employee testify how two fake IDs were used to clear the way for Kelly to marry Aaliyah after he began a sexual relationship with her and believed she had become pregnant. A marriage license that was put into evidence falsely listed her age as 18; Kelly was 27 at the time.

Prosecutors say Kelly wanted to use the marriage, which was later annulled, to shield himself from criminal charges related to having sex with a minor and to prevent her from testifying against him. She died in a plane crash in 2001 at age 22.

Jerhonda Johnson Pace alleges assault, provides shirt with DNA that matches Kelly

The first of the six complaining witnesses to take the stand was Jerhonda Johnson Pace, who previously shared her story in the Lifetime docuseries "Surviving R. Kelly." In court, she alleged she had sex with the singer when she was 16, although she initially told him she was 19, which is over the age of consent.

Pace testified she had to be granted permission by the singer to use the bathroom and that Kelly recorded their sex sessions, later showing the recordings to her to point out where she could use “improvement.” She said she "ended up contracting herpes" while she was with Kelly in 2009.

In a courtroom sketch, Jerhonda Johnson Pace testifies against R. Kelly during the singer's sex-trafficking trial in federal court on Aug. 18, 2021, in New York.
In a courtroom sketch, Jerhonda Johnson Pace testifies against R. Kelly during the singer's sex-trafficking trial in federal court on Aug. 18, 2021, in New York.

Kelly's primary care doctor, Kris McGrath, also testified under subpoena that he was the star's doctor for 25 years until 2019. McGrath said he diagnosed Kelly with genital herpes and told him to tell his sexual partners.

During her last day at Kelly's home, Pace said the R&B star spit on her, slapped her and choked her until she passed out after he flew into a rage because she texted a friend. After oral sex, she used her blue shirt to wipe semen from her face and saved it, she said.

First witness in R. Kelly's sex-trafficking trial alleges he gave her herpes as a teen

DNA expert Yongfei Wu examined Pace's shirt and told the jury that DNA found on the garment and DNA from a cheek swab from Kelly were "exactly the same." On cross-examination by Kelly's attorney Cannick, Wu acknowledged he did not know the origin of the shirt or whether it had been, for example, stolen.

Under cross-examination by Cannick, Pace acknowledged she and her mother did not call the police when she returned home.

R. Kelly trial: Reluctant witness says she had friendship-turned-sexual relationship with star starting at age 15

More accusers allege Kelly gave them herpes, recorded them during sex, groomed minors

The second accuser, who called herself "Jane" on the stand, said when she first met Kelly, he pressured her for sex before an audition. She said she moved in with him while still a junior in high school and testified Kelly chastised or punished her for various reasons during their time together, including forcing her to have sex with another man while Kelly recorded it on an iPad. Another time, Kelly forced her to rub feces on her face and videotape it, she said. She was also coerced into getting an abortion in 2017 after Kelly said he wasn't ready to have a child with her, she said.

Jane also contracted herpes after sex with Kelly, who hadn't disclosed he had a sexually transmitted disease, she said while weeping. She also alleged Kelly made his girlfriends practice answering questions about him to better defend him during his volatile CBS interview with Gayle King.

In response, the defense presented letters in which the witness defended Kelly and accused her parents of using her sexual relationship to extract money from him. On re-direct questioning by the prosecution, she said Kelly told her to write those letters to her family.

In this courtroom artist's sketch, R. Kelly, center, listens during his trial in New York on Aug. 26, 2021.
In this courtroom artist's sketch, R. Kelly, center, listens during his trial in New York on Aug. 26, 2021.

The third complaining witness, who called herself "Stephanie," said in 1999 she sought out Kelly to help a friend with her singing aspirations. Kelly subjected her to a months-long abusive sexual relationship when she was 17, during which he frequently videotaped their sexual encounters, she testified. His sexual demands and videotaping of her in humiliating positions left her "disgusted" and feeling "less than," she told the jury.

R. Kelly trial: Witness says she wrote accusing letters to her parents at singer's behest

Another complaining witness, "Faith," said she was exposed to a sexually transmitted disease after meeting Kelly at a backstage after-party in 2017 when she was 19. She said the singer paid for her flights and hotel rooms to attend his concerts in cities where he demanded sex from her. When questioned by the prosecution, she said Kelly did not tell her he had herpes and did not wear condoms.

She testified that later, when she discovered bumps in her mouth, she went to a doctor and was told she had herpes. When she tried to contact Kelly, he didn't respond, she said.

The fifth complaining witness alleged Kelly locked her in a darkened, windowless room for days and raped her while she was unconscious. The witness, who went to Kelly's Chicago-area home to interview him, said she spent two days in captivity before finally being given something to eat. After a few bites and sips, she alleges she passed out and awoke to find herself naked with "wet stuff" between her legs and Kelly pulling up his pants in the corner. What felt like another few days passed before she was finally given a flight home, she said.

Cannick pressed the witness on why it took several years for her to come forward with her accusations. He also noted her admission that she had a cellphone when she alleges she was locked in the room, yet did not call 911.

Kelly's former assistant and tour manager, Demetrius Smith, testified under subpoena and immunity from prosecution that he helped facilitate Kelly's illegal 1994 marriage to the late singer Aaliyah, who was 15 at the time.

R. Kelly trial: Details spilled on fake ID obtained for 15-year-old Aaliyah to illicitly marry singer

Other witnesses allege uncharged crimes

Though there are six complaining witnesses in the trial, the prosecution has also called witnesses alleging uncharged crimes in order to establish a pattern of alleged criminal behavior by Kelly.

These witnesses have included a male ("Louis"), who said Kelly performed oral sex on him in 2007 when he was a 17-year-old high school student, and a woman ("Addie"), who said Kelly raped her at age 17 following a performance in Miami in 1994.

Another uncharged witness – who testified during the trial's third week without using her full real name – told the jury she was 27 when she met Kelly through a mutual friend in 2001. She said when they began having sex, she told him she was worried about STDs, including AIDS.

In this courtroom artist's sketch, R. Kelly, top left, listens as his defense attorney Nicole Blank Becker, center, makes her opening statement at his federal sex-trafficking trial in New York on Aug. 18, 2021.
In this courtroom artist's sketch, R. Kelly, top left, listens as his defense attorney Nicole Blank Becker, center, makes her opening statement at his federal sex-trafficking trial in New York on Aug. 18, 2021.

When she asked him to use protection, "he just said no," she testified. She said the singer paid $200,000 to settle a lawsuit she brought forth accusing him of giving her herpes without disclosing he had it.

Another witness, now 31 and testifying as "Alexis," said she began a friendship-turned-sexual relationship with the R&B star that lasted on-and-off for nine years from the time she was 15.

Kelly's former employees paint controlling picture

Diana Copeland, R. Kelly's longtime assistant, testified that although the R&B singer exhibited a variety of bizarre and controlling behaviors, she never was witness to the alleged kidnapping and sexual abuse with which he stands charged.

"He could get pretty heated," and make employees cry, she said.

Copeland said R. Kelly's paranoia once led him to ask her to disrobe in order to prove she was not wearing a wire. He also once forced her to write a letter falsely confessing to stealing from him.

The assistant said she never saw evidence of the more serious charges that have been leveled by a long list of witnesses in the singer's racketeering trial.

Copeland's testimony painted a picture of a poorly educated and disorganized superstar incapable of keeping track of his affairs.

She said R. Kelly had no control over his bank account and "no idea where his royalties were going. … He didn’t even know his own Social Security number." The singer also had trouble reading and writing and often had Copeland draft his text messages.

R. Kelly trial: Assistant claims he made her falsely confess to stealing, prove she wasn't wired

Anthony Navarro, who worked for Kelly between 2007 and 2009 as an alleged "runner," described Kelly's home as a "strange place," testifying under subpoena that Kelly's "girls" and "girlfriends" had to "get permission for most things" under "Rob's rules."

Tom Arnold, another employee of Kelly's between 2003 and 2011, said one of his duties was to "hand out" small pieces of paper with Kelly's phone number to women in malls or at parties. Arnold also said Kelly would fine employees by docking their pay for infractions like failing to get the singer lunch, sleeping through a call or buying a sweatband for a female guest. He said he was once fined for not getting a female tour guide for Kelly at Disney World.

Federal prosecutors have also called other technical witnesses to testify about what they found during searches of devices such as iPhones, iPads and laptops. Chris Wilson, a computer forensic agent for the Department of Homeland Security, testified about three devices he examined from which he found a text message, sender unnamed, that read: “You’re young and there’s a lot of things you don’t know. … I want to groom you and be bonded with you,” which was sent on Dec. 24, 2017.

The last government witness was an expert witness on abusive relationships. Dawn Hughes testified about studies showing that many abusers systematically isolate, demean, subjugate and spy on their victims as means of control — all tactics allegedly used by Kelly. Generally speaking, it isn’t unusual for powerful people like Kelly to be surrounded by underlings who “knew about it and didn’t do anything,” Hughes said.

Contributing: Elise Brisco, Maria Puente, Cydney Henderson, Charles Trepany, Anika Reed, Kim Willis and Marco della Cava, USA TODAY, and The Associated Press 

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit hotline.rainn.org/online and receive confidential support.

R. Kelly trial: Witness testifies R&B star forced sex acts, told her 'I'm a legend'

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: R Kelly sentencing: Everything that happened during the singer's trial